Sing-a-Long in Protest

The Lovely Wife and I spent a very interesting Sunday evening at the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre recently – well, I say The Globe, but the ‘performance’ was in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the intimate internal space, lit by candles. It is a lovely little theatre that makes you feel right in the middle of whatever performance and indeed if you are seated in the ‘Pit’ then you may well be dragged into the play.

We were there for something a bit different this time, however, an evening hat was billed as ‘Songs for the People’. It was a mixture of folk music and accompanying history from the 1400s to the present day, presented by Steve Knightley (who is half of the folk group Show of Hands) and the historian and presenter Michael Wood.

I admit that it was Wood’s involvement that interested me – I was obsessed by ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander The Great’ when much younger, a series that was more real life drama than documentary and something which showed Wood’s ability to drag you into the story – whatever it is – by enthusiasm and force of personality. I’m pleased to say that at 71 he has not lost any of that ability. Add talented musicians and a fair amount of banter (mostly along the lines of ‘Michael – we do the singing, you stick to the history, mate’ variety) and a couple of hours flew past in a whistle stop tour of the importance of song in protest and times of struggle.

Topics covered included the Black Death; the English (or as was pointed out more accurately the British) Civil War, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  Peterloo Massacre, Chartists, Suffragettes and more with appropriate readings, illustrative songs of the period and some facts that had the audience gasping in disbelief – for example that some of those supporting the Chartist movement in the 1830s were actually convicted of Treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – in the 1830s! (eventually commuted to Transportation). Or that in the Civil War the loss of life in Britain, proportional to the population at the time, was greater than in the 1914-18 war.

Through the medium of song people have supported each other, made their needs clear and drew attention to inequality and injustice, with varying degrees of success. As was pointed out, some songs and melodies have been so powerful that they have been recycled, sometimes hundreds of years apart, when the same themes re-occur and people feel the need to say something, to give protest a voice (for example in relation to anti-war songs). Folk today continues to fly the flag, although mass singing is probably now more limited to football grounds (again, many of the tunes used on the terraces around the country are based on old folk tunes). This is because that whatever the lyrics, the songs are easy to sing. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was the audience joining in, sometimes invited, sometimes by itself, because  it kind of felt right to do so. Folk is at its best in a mass singalong and Michael Wood pointed out that it brings people together and, in a time of conflict and disagreement – and where inequality and lack of justice is just as prevalent as ever – maybe it is time that we all joined a song of reconciliation and hope; that just might help make things better.

Song writing friends – I know there are a few of you – go and write something special. We need it, I think.


How People Remembered

There is nothing like being surrounded by dead people to make you think about death and people’s attitude to it, and how that attitude had changed over the centuries. As well as volunteering for English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire I also am part of a small number of volunteers that help people interpret the De Grey Mausoleum in Flitton, a village about a mile and half from Wrest, the home of the De Greys until 1917 (I am pretty certain I’ve blogged about this before but I’m getting old and therefore will inevitably repeat myself). In the 1600s the church a Flitton was the local Parish church so when the 7th Earl of Kent decided to create a mausoleum for the family it was added to the North side of the chancel.

Family mausolea of this period are an odd beast. Unlike a monument in a church aisle the mausoleum is for the family only; monuments in it a reminder to descendants of where they have come from and sending various additional messages that change over the years as styles and attitudes change. The De Grey Mausoleum is one of the biggest in England and has monuments from the early 1600s through to the last in 1859. It was massively increased by Henry, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent – more on him later – and one of things I enjoy is being able to show people how the monuments change over time.

The earliest monuments hang over from the Medieval view of reminding people they are mortal, and death comes to us all, no matter how important you are. It is adorned with skulls and almost in a black comic manner, a colourful hourglass with wings – time flying, indeed. Next to this chest tomb is another from the late 1600s – a man and a woman’s effigy lying in state but now carved with more elegance and the shock tactics have been dropped in the 5o years between them.

When the Duke of Kent quadrupled the size of the Mausoleum he was at the height of his power, having been Lord Chamberlain and having elevated the family to a Dukedom. His monument is massive and of the highest quality, an Eighteenth-century hymn to achievement. He lies full sized reclining, dressed as a Roman general. Now it is not so much about death as about what was achieved in life.

Unfortunately for Henry and the De Greys, the one thing he could not achieve was a legacy. All his children pre-deceased him and with no male heir the Dukedom passed back to the Crown (the current Duke of Kent being a member of the Royal family is a regular source of confusion for visitors, who assume there must be some Royal connection).  The monuments to his children in my eyes become smaller and speak more of the sadness of a powerful man facing the inevitability that there was nothing he could do to save his family. In the end, he secures the title of Marchioness for his remaining descendant, his granddaughter Jemima.

The monuments to her and her two daughters, now late 1700s and creeping into the Nineteenth Century are best described as modest and elegant; these are still monuments to powerful and wealthy people, but as they sit on the wall opposite the huge monument to Henry, they almost seem a little embarrassed by the bombastic excess.

My favourite monuments are the last ones installed before the family moved away and stopped using the mausoleum. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey, inherited the Wrest Estate from his aunt and set about designing his own house to replace the old one for himself and his Countess Henrietta. Henrietta, who died first, is seen being carried up to heaven by an angel as Thomas stands among other mourners, his head in his hands. To the left, he himself lies in state, full size and realistically carved, looking as though he might just get up and walk away at any time (it is a source of some amusement that we have to put an old bed sheet over Thomas when we lock up to prevent his effigy being degraded by the droppings of resident bats).

Both monuments drip with Victorian Romanticism, that death is merely sleep until the Resurrection, and anyway we’ll be united with our loved ones in heaven.

The De Grey Mausoleum is open 2-4pm the first Sunday of the month through the Summer and on occasional Wednesdays, bets to check the website Admission is free.


Seeing Things (Or Not)

I have kind of slipped out of the habit of rambling at the internet each week, so I thought I would try and pick it up again, at least when I have something I think may be vaguely interesting to say/talk about/recommend. We will see how it goes. Certainly, summer holidays are a good time for projects for us, as not having kids means that these weeks can be quite quiet. Although for some reason this year has not been quite the respite we might have hoped for after the events and emotions of last year.

The Lovely Wife and I are quite partial to the hidden and the quirky and one of the places I have wanted to visit for several years is Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields. Dennis Severs was an artist who passed away in 1999.  His home had been 18 Folgate Street, a four floored Eighteenth century town house in East London (I was very amused that it is around the corner from Norton Folgate which always makes me think of one of my favourite Madness albums – for good reason, as this is their patch). Over the years he was living there he gradually constructed his house into an art installation that was meant to evoke the life of a family of Huguenot weavers across the centuries from the Eighteenth to early Twentieth Century. It is not a museum, and it there is very little explanation, deliberately so. The staff who let us in give a brief introduction and then the rest of the visit of 45 minutes or so is carried out in silence, with the occasional paper note reminding you to ‘experience’ the house through look (the whole place is largely candlelit) and through smells and noises. It is quite an odd experience and one to chalk down to you probably get out of it what you put into it, indeed the paper notes repeatedly claim that the motto of the place is ‘You either see it, or you don’t’. As most of the promotional literature indicates it is meant to feel that the occupants of the room you have just walked into have left moments before, leaving you to imagine what was going on before you arrived through the ‘clues’ they have left behind. I found it quite odd at first, but as you go on you start to get the hang of it, for example walking into a room and just sniffing the air and listening to the aural cues before looking.

Not for everyone, but for those who like the offbeat, probably worth a look.

Additionally, Spitalfields was a bit of a revelation. In my head the area had a poor reputation and certainly in some periods has been a genuine slum. Now, Spitalfields Old market is filled with up market crafts, the buildings occupied with up market restaurant chains and hipster attracting bars. That might not sound too attractive but on the Monday evening we were there the place was buzzing and siting outside at a bar with a nice cold beer made for ample enjoyable people watching opportunities 5 minutes from Liverpool Street station. As with the Kings Cross area, this part of East London has been revitalised and had for me a very particular look, with the old Eighteenth century terraces, pubs and enamel fronted pie and fish shops set against a skyline of the business district (the Gherkin looms seemingly at the end of one of the main streets in a dramatic fashion). Two London worlds that are very different but neighbours and the main connection between them being the flow of people between them.

Links for those that might be interested, Dennis Severs House, Spitalfields Old Market and we ate at Galvin La Chapelle next to the market – expensive, but the venue, food and staff were lovely (oh, and apparently despite the name, which is actually connected to a vineyard they own, the restaurant is in a building that had been part of a hospital – Spitalfields apparent gets its name from (Ho)spital – that was later used as a girl’s school).

Here Comes The Sun, And It’s Mostly Alright

Normally an early morning run is a good experience – heaven knows I need the exercise – but for a large chunk of the year it is perhaps more of a struggle in the dark, the damp and the cold. From this time of the year for a few months though it can be an altogether happier experience – it’s light early for a start, and on good spring days like today you can have the best of both world’s – glorious bright sun and blue skies but still cool enough that overheating in that glow of the great burning orb in the sky.

There are other benefits to it being ‘nice out’ (as we might say in parts of the North). The most important of these for me is that, at least while the oncoming sun is still a bit of a novelty, so many people suddenly start smiling and treating their fellow human beings just a tiny little bit better. Certainly, that was what I observed this morning. I’m a creature that likes his routine do I will run the same routes often at similar times, so you learn to expect certain things. However, this morning people went out of there way to avoid obstructing me (maybe I am really that fat now that they think I will take up all the pavement). Drivers, normally who I expect to be completely focussed on getting to their work place and/or dropping their precious ones off at school or nursery, instead waved me across the road cheerfully. This happens to the Lovely Wife a lot (to me, not surprisingly of course), but it is not at all something I am used to. But this morning, this was the standard.

The better thing is that we all know that little kindnesses, like little cruelties, spawn more of the same. I am no different to anyone else in this respect. If someone lets me into a queue of traffic, I will be much more likely to let the next driver in as I pass on the ‘good deed’. As I ran past a lady trying to back her car out of her drive onto a busy road – her view in one direction completely blocked by an illegal parked van I felt compelled this morning to stop, go back and guide her safely out. When later in the day I was picking up my lunch in a supermarket and on overburdened old lady dropped her stick, I almost fell over myself to pick it up for her and check she was OK, before cheerfully marching back to the office, only briefly waylaid by another old lady who wanted to know the time. I can only presume she saw my previous action and assumed I was safe to approach as a clear friend of little old ladies. (The Lovely Wife will tell you that I have spent significant time helping the self esteem of little old ladies mostly in churches by patiently listening to their life stories – if I am lucky, over a cup of tea. In fact, they often have very interesting life stories…)

But of course, there is a problem here. Today, I felt happy, blessed and warmed by the sun, and wanted to pass on the love. But so many days I would have just kept running and left that driver to her own devices. I would like to think I would still be there to pick up a walking stick, but maybe I would not have noticed, and would have walked away in my own little world as someone who needed help struggled on. It is something that bothers me a lot, that I often fail the standard I expect for myself. But at least today I felt a tiny bit closer to the person I want to be in those few seconds. Thank you, Mr Blue Sky.

All Change, Please

I seem to have entered a phase of life when things are coming to an end. Usually a natural, largely expected, series of endings but endings nevertheless. Obviously some of those relate to my Father’s passing and subsequent sale of the house I grew up in; part of the upset for me on the day I finally posted the last set of keys through the door and left the place for the last time was the mind torture running up to that point, which goes along the lines of ‘this will be the last time I do/say/see [insert thing]’ which had me almost in tears a few time (much respect to the Lovely Wife for helping me keep it mostly together.

Also, I am at an age where it is unrealistic to expect everything to stay the same – it simply doesn’t and the sooner we can get our head around that fact the better we can deal with change whether that change be welcomed or hated.

But I was somewhat blind-sided last week when the hotel I was staying in announced they were closing the next morning.

I was tucking into some dinner in the hotel bar as I am wont to do on business trips to Brussels and chatting to the staff. I have been staying in this relatively small hotel off Avenue Louise for many years now. I do not remember exactly why I first stayed there – it is a good twenty-minute walk from the nearest metro station so is hardly convenient. But over the years it has grown on me and since being in Brussels is a fair chunk of my job I have stayed there enough – and the staff turnover so small – that being greeted by name and a smile when I arrive is something I have gotten used to (and I know I was not the only ‘regular’). The Lovely Wife has stayed there with me and we were delighted to find one of my favourite Brussels restaurants – in an old clock factory – was a short walk away. I have enjoyed sitting in the Bicycle themed bar (it used to show looped classic Tour De France footage) reading; and there was good running nearby at the lakes at Flagey.

Most importantly, I was staying at the hotel when the bombs went off in Brussels in March 2016. When I was turned back from the Metro station, some thirty minutes after the bomb at Maelbeck Metro station had gone off I went back to the hotel and was received with calm and allowed to return to my room. I did not leave the hotel again that day, spending most of the time listening to news updates and running on the hotel treadmill looking through the skylight of the rooftop fitness centre at perfect blue sky and wondering how that fitted really with the constant sirens of the emergency services. That evening I remember dining alone in the bar while the staff calmly carried on, despite the stress they must have been under. They were consummate professionals and any panic I may have felt was assuaged by their friendliness and care. When I could go home the next day, I took that calm with me through the enhanced security in place.

So, I admit the slightly weird feeling of being fond of the Four Points by Sheraton, Brussels. Or rather of the staff. But the chain is shutting them down, and although apparently someone has acquired the property and it will reopen in a few months it is hard not to feel that its part in my life is over, and that I should instead concentrate on the memories where a place to stay became more of a reminder of how wonderfully human a diverse group of people can be in a time of crisis.

Blood, Sweat & Tears

We very rarely think about how some things got to be the way they are, because for some of us they have always been there. However, some things we today take completely for granted are only there through the work and sacrifice of hundreds of unknown men and women in the past, and sometimes it is good to be reminded of that – if only to marvel at their cumulative achievements.

For example, the Lovely Wife and I were on one of our regular rambles through the Hertfordshire countryside and were crossing a bridge over the railway line that leads from London to the East Midlands. It is a huge thing, not so much the number of tracks, rather the embankments or cuttings through which it runs. These are massive constructions that run for miles, through all sorts of different terrain and cutting through hat must have seemed impenetrable obstacles. Today of course, this would have all been assisted by machine, but this construction was for the much part by hand, assisted only by horses. Hundreds of men, leaving homes, working long hours, throwing up the Nation’s railways. Cutting tunnels, building bridges. I find it quite mindboggling and just a little humbling, as many of these men died during the construction due to the poor conditions and lack of anything that approaches Health & Safety. And largely, we have forgotten them and what they did (certainly the only tribute I have found is the wonderful ‘Driving the Last Spike’, all 10 minutes of so of it, on the 1989 Genesis album ‘We can’t Dance’).

The Lovely Wife and I were reminded again of the people who did the work that today we use and admire when visiting Beer Quarry Caves in Devon this last week. Just outside the village of Beer (I’m putting that in for my International friends as a clarification that this is not some strange subterranean brewery) they are not caves but the underground workings where over about a thousand years people have been digging out Beer Stone. The Stone has the advantage of being relatively easy to carve when first dug out, but when weathered it turns very hard and pales in colour, making it ideal for decorative detailing on high status buildings, especially churches and cathedrals and large public buildings. The Romans started the mining in earnest and the work continued well into this century. Through that period thousands of quarry men worked mostly in darkness to dig out the stuff, and many of them died in the process through accidents or later respiratory problems from the dust – and were paid a pittance for their pains. While the conditions were equally unpleasant and dangerous, coal miners at the same period were at least paid well for what they dug out. In later medieval times onwards the otherwise mostly illiterate quarry men signed their names in charcoal and many examples survive, so, unlike the men that dug the railways we still know who some of them were and even some of their stories. It is a sober reminder for me when I feel moved to complain about something in my life what a contrast it is to these people. Also, next time you look at some fine window tracery and admire the work of the master masons, we should also think about the men who hacked the stuff out with a pick in order to feed their family.

Do visit the caves if you are in the area – they are massive in scale and impressive and interesting in what they represent and the stories they tell.

Eat local?

A canelé is a small French pastry flavoured with rum and vanilla with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark, thick caramelized crust. It takes the shape of a small, striated cylinder up to five centimetres in height with a depression at the top.

Well, that is how Wikipedia describes the local delicacy in Bordeaux. I would describe it as a small, slightly sweet, slightly rubbery, nodule. We had the pleasure of a long weekend in the city recently and you could not move for the things, shops selling them seemed to be on every corner, so it looked as though it was more of a challenge not to buy some then to actually get hold of a pack of the things. I’m sorry to say, moreover, that while there is much to enjoy about Bordeaux – not least the wine, but beyond that it is an interesting and pretty city, well worth visiting – eating canelés is not going to be one of my highest recommendations.

I was not really that impressed, and nor was the Lovely Wife, which when it comes to the subject of cake means it really was not doing well when even she did not think much of it.

I’m sure that lots of people love them, and that is just fine. I’m not having a go at anyone’s favourite sweet snack.

However, I do find it funny that quite often local ‘delicacies’ fall a little short of expectations. So much so that I immediately get a little suspicious now if someone insists ‘oh, you must have [Insert name of proposed food nirvana] if you are going to [Insert origin of proposed heavenly morsel]’. Because, it is going to be disappointing. At best. At least that is my experience most of the time. Except possibly eating Leitao (suckling pig, apologies to the non-meat eaters) in Portugal, which was indeed delicious, but maybe the exception proves the rule.

Living up to expectations does seem to be a struggle, but perhaps the problem is that anything that is truly unique to a region or city is almost certainly by definition and acquired taste. If I had grown up with canelés as part of my diet I would probably love them, and even more, miss them terribly when living away. I know that on the occasions I have lived abroad for any length of time what I miss are things I think of as very British; good ale and cider, marmite, prawn cocktail crisps etc.

Or rather perhaps I get nostalgic about such things as actually I always feel like immersing myself in the food culture of anywhere I go so it is more about the idea of things I cannot get rather than salivating at the thought as I’m chomping through my noodles.

Maybe it is an unconscious protective mechanism. After all, if I had fallen in love with the canelé last weekend then it would have been a source of some disruption if the only place I could get the things would be Bordeaux (although I am sure that one of those ubiquitous little shops would have been happy to ship them to feed my new-found addiction to rum flavoured French pastries). So, I’m setting myself up to go ‘yeah, glad a I tried one, but probably never again’. Because I will try anything (food wise) once, having been brought up in the ‘at least try it’ tradition by my dear parents. Well, Mum at least, who was always keen to try new things, while Dad would look on in horror, bless him. His answer when asked what he wanted for dinner would inevitably be ‘steak and chips’ – which might have been a running joke, but he also meant it.

I do not think he would have thought much of the canelé. But I did have some nice duck in Bordeaux too, and at least he would have approved of that.